It all began in early August when a friend told me that MGM needed one more man--willing to shave his head--to play an Iroquois Indian.
As someone who loves to perform, the idea appealed to me. After all, I thought, maybe this was how Yul Brynner got his start. So I went over to the MGM office in Old Town Alexandria and met Mary Gaffney, the casting director for the CBS television miniseries "George Washington." She said I looked fine. The pay: minimum wage to start plus an extra $100 for allowing them to shave my head.
It was pitch black when I left my house the following Monday for a 5:30 a.m. call at an Alexandria warehouse where MGM had built a movie set. My first stop was the makeup man Rod, who ran an electric clipper over my head, then an electric razor that got right down to scalp. Not since my grandfather, a retired Army colonel, took clippers to my head when I was in grade school had there been such a sensation. Twenty years of dark brown hair gone in 20 minutes. My over-the-collar coiffure reduced to pure skin. Over the next month I was to have my head shaved four more times.
As Rod's razor slid across my head, I noticed Barry Bostwick, who won a Tony Award for best actor in a Broadway musical in 1977 and played in the "Rocky Horror Picture Show," sipping coffee as he was getting made up to my right. He had the series' lead role--George Washington.
While the shearing was in process, my thoughts were on the day ahead. The repercussions of a shaved head were yet to come--shock by friends, stares from strangers. When I was in public I never got away from it. There was always a reaction. In the end I was forced to devise stories to explain my bare state--I joined the Marines, it's hot. Everyone wanted to feel my head. And I suddenly began to notice other bald people. There was a good feeling knowing that mine would grow back.
The hair on my arms and chest went next. Then it was on to wardrobe for my Indian costume, back to make-up for facial war paint and body paint, then finally to props for knife, tomahawk and musket. The transformation from pale Irishman to brown Iroquois was complete.
For the next month we filmed on location at Fort Belvoir, Gunston Hall and Mount Vernon. The series was to follow with historical accuracy the life of George Washington from his boyhood until he became the nation's first president. I worked 18 days on location, first as an Indian and later as a member of a platoon in Washington's army, headed by a fictional character named Eban who was to epitomize the average G.I. Joe in the Continental Army.
For those who had never been in the big-time movies, there was a lot of glamor in the job. But that wore off fast in 100-degree temperatures. On one day alone, the medics on the set had to take five extras done in by heat, humidity and bee stings to the hospital. I worked, at times, 14-hour days, six days a week.
After a few days in the broiling sun with no rain, I joked to one of the crew that director Buzz Kulik, whose credits include "Brian's Song" and the remake of "From Here To Eternity," had mortgaged all or part of his soul in return for good weather for filming.Not one drop of rain fell in more than a month of filming.
The chiggers at Fort Belvoir were the worst, though. One day we Indians were crawling through the tall grass, simulating an attack that was made with the French on George Washington at Fort Necessity, a battle site in Pennsylvania. The next day I had dozens of chigger bites everywhere. A can of Off became my constant companion thereafter.
"Hurry up and wait" is what you learn when you are making a film. Setting up a single scene can take hours and sometimes yields only a few seconds of usable footage. But when the cameras roll and Buzz yells "Action!" everything must be perfectly in sync. The concentration by cast and crew must be total. A take can be spoiled by something as simple as a plane flying overhead or an Indian's white Fruit of the Loom underwear showing under his loincloth. And even when everything does go smoothly and Buzz says "Cut and print," there is still no guarantee that the day's work won't end up on the cutting room floor.
The fun in making a movie is the new people you meet. One of my favorites was assistant director Doug Metzger. Under the most miserable conditions, he never lost his sense of humor even on days when he had to direct 300 mostly unprofessional, untrained extras who frequently posed banal questions. One day he was having trouble getting extras to move quickly to a battle scene. "Gentlemen," Doug droned, "this is not a picnic."
A few days later he sat down next to me with a lunch consisting of three ice cream cups. "Hey, Dougie," I reminded him, "this is not a picnic."
"Yes, it is," he responded without missing a beat.
Jerry Gatlin, the stunt coordinator, is another piece of work. Gatlin looks like one of those old West cowboys, his face chiseled with lines from too many days in the hot sun, his cheek holding a huge wad of Apple Jack tobacco. Gatlin has made 22 movies in Mexico alone and was the stunt double for Charles Bronson in "The Magnificent Seven." He would regale us with tales of working with John Wayne. "Wayne used to give out a mug to each member of the cast and crew at the end of a picture that said 'Thanks, the Duke,' " Gatlin said. "I've got 14 of those mugs."
Lloyd Bridges, who plays another fictional character named Caleb, was truly a pleasure to work with. He looks as much at home on horseback as he did in the water in the old TV series "Seahunt." Also on the set were James Mason, who plays Gen. Braddock, and Jaclyn Smith, who plays Sally Fairfax.
But it was largely the people behind the scenes that created a sense of family among many of us who worked daily on the set--everyone from writer-producer Richard Fielder to the hair, makeup and wardrobe people and the crew.
It's always nice to encounter old friends. There was, first of all, my brother Blaise, a New York actor, who did a day's work at Gatsby's Tavern in Old Town. I also ran into Iliff McMahan who was hired as a stand-in--we had worked together five years before at Catholic University's Hartke Theater and we hadn't seen each other since. A few weeks later I spied Rosemary Murphy, a longtime family friend, walking along with Patty Duke Astin, who plays Martha Washington. I ran up to say hello. Rosemary looked at my bald head and gasped, "Oh, my God. What have they done to you?"
I went on the set for the last time two weeks ago. And now I wait for the series to be aired, probably next spring. As a kid, I might also have been waiting for a call from Hollywood. Today, I know that I'm the one that will have to make the call--to MGM to see if they can use me in the scenes at Valley Forge, to the companies that will be doing two movies here in the future. When the lights are on you and the cameras are rolling . . .